Accentuate the Negative

Campaign reporters are often conflicted. You could say hypocritical, but that might be unnecessarily judgmental. For instance, they condemn rigorous adherence to talking points, but any display of candor is severely punished with the kind of coverage that makes what are widely known as "Kinsley gaffes" (i.e. inadvertently telling the truth) far less likely. They despise the culture of the political consultant, with its emphasis on style over substance and perception over reality, but simultaneously embrace that culture as their own, focusing relentlessly on appearances and how things are going to play with the public, acting like theater critics evaluating the show of politics. And they condemn negative campaigning, while at the same time they hunger for negativity, since nothing is more boring than a campaign in which the contestants are polite to each other.

One of the ways this is apparent is in how any bare-knuckled move by Barack Obama is greeted by tut-tutting that he has turned his back on that hopey-changey, above-partisanship guy he used to be. As Dave Weigel reminds us, this requires some willful forgetting of what actually occurred four years ago:

The myth that Obama ran a Different Kind of Campaign is based on a few bold bets -- like rejecting an early summer gas tax holiday -- that paid off. But we're also talking about a campaign that completely fabricated an anti-NAFTA position, and a campaign that tipped off Ben Smith to the haircut that destroyed John Edwards.* We're talking about a campaign that outspent John McCain by as much as a 3-1 ratio in the final stretch, and devoted most of that money to negative ads. The "hope and change" campaign was the happy cover on a dogged, overwhelming attack campaign. It used to benefit Democrats to obscure this; now, it benefits Republicans.

It's possible to have a campaign with lofty rhetoric and inspiring goals that also does what it takes to crush its opponent. Obama's 2008 campaign is proof of that. And don't forget that he has always been willing to do what it takes to win. In his very first run for State Senate in Illinois, Obama successfully challenged the petitions of all four of his primary opponents, which got everyone but him booted off the ballot. He may have had too much faith in his ability to bring people together during the process of governing and underestimated the willingness of Republicans to obstruct anything and everything, but Barack Obama has never been naive when it comes to campaigns.

Let's make sure we keep in mind what we talk about when we talk about "negativity." You can be negative and still be completely fair. Obama could run an ad saying, "I believe Mitt Romney's plan to cut taxes for the wealthy is fiscally imprudent," and that would be a "negative" ad. But that's not the same as, say, starting a whisper campaign to imply that your opponent is a pedophile, which is something Karl Rove once did. And right now, the "negativity" Obama is engaged in is pretty civil.

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